Auto-driving cars could be a technological development that greatly benefits the general quality of life, as long as we are still the ones telling them where to go and not vice versa. That is a concern Kokone Morikawa and her dream-state alter-ego Ancien will come to understand. Her/their experiences will sound a cautionary note on science and industry, but not necessarily a pessimistic one. She will face danger, but if Morikawa survives, she stands to inherit her true legacy in Kenji Kamiyama’s Ancien and the Magic Tablet (trailer here), which had its North American premiere as the closing film of this year’s New York International Film Festival, a mere day after its Japanese opening.
From time to time, Morikawa finds herself lucid dreaming in the dystopian fantasy world of Heartland, a Metropolis-esque city-state dedicated to automobile production, where she is a semi-captive princess with magical powers and her plush dog Joy talks and walks and watches her six. Only her spells, cast through her tablet computer (take your puny little wand and hit the bricks Harry Potter) can invest the Evangelion-like Engine-heads protecting Heartland from the ominous Kaiju, Colossus.
Day-in-day-out, Morikawa is “just” a smart but unusually sleepy kid, with a few close friends she can rely on and her father Momtarō (or Peach the pirate, as he appears in her Heartland dreams). Her mother apparently died when she was young, but Morikawa is a little sketchy on the details and she has never met her grandfather (as per her father’s decisions, not her own). Much to her surprise, events in real world Japan start to parallel the narrative of her long running dream when her father is suddenly arrested and goons from the old man’s car company start rummaging through their house looking for her mother’s old tablet. Morikawa will have to outmaneuver the bad guys in both worlds, but it will be easier for her in Heartland, where she can use her magical powers.
In just about every way, Kamiyama has created the perfectly representative anime film, incorporating nearly every crowd-pleasing “greatest hit” staple of the genre. Yet, somehow, he marshals them in a narrative that always makes sense and never feels forced. Morikawa is also a massively appealing young heroine, plucky, loyal, a bit unsure of herself, but never cloying. There are certainly far more problematic chosen children in sf/fantasy films.
Kamiyama might not have the name recognition here of a Miyazaki, Makoto Shinkai, or Mamoru Hosoda, but he has been entrusted with features in the Ghost in the Shell and Cyborg 009 franchises, so you know he has to be a professional with some talent. In fact, Ancien is exactly the film that will take him to that next “brand name” level up. It is paced like greased lightning and packs a well-earned emotional pay-off. Plus, it is the perfect film for parents and teachers looking to encourage young girls in STEM subjects.
As an additional layer of intrigue, the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympic games plays an important role in the film (driver-less cars may or may not participate in the closing ceremony). Hip viewers might hear echoes of the Beijing Games, for which corners were cut and lives were sacrificed just to put on a good show. “Heartland,” with its hulking, inadaptable car factories sure sounds like a veiled reference to Detroit, but Kamiyama is also critical of Japanese industrial organization, making the point in post-screening Q&A that Japan has always been competent when it comes to hardware production but has lagged in software development (hence the use of a formula as a Macguffin).